Early retailer focused on rural residents by mailing Montgomery Ward catalogs, which offered thousands of items.
Aaron Montgomery Ward, founder of Montgomery Ward & Co.
When Montgomery Ward & Co. put out its first mail order catalog in 1872, it was the first mail order catalog in the U.S.
Aaron Montgomery Ward was a traveling salesman in northern Illinois. He found that rural customers often wanted “citified” goods, but when they found them at local, rural establishments, they were both more expensive and often of lower quality. Sensing a market, Ward launched a mail order business for dry goods. By eliminating the middleman, he created savings for his customers. Orders were shipped by rail to the nearest train depot.
In late 1870 or early 1871, Ward – then based in Chicago – purchased a line of goods to sell, but his entire inventory was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire in October 1871. Not to be deterred, he and two partners raised $1,600 and purchased new stock in 1872. In August 1872, they issued the first Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog, consisting of 163 items listed on one printed page.
It was a difficult time in which to launch a new business. In the wake of a global economic depression (the Panic of 1873), Ward’s partners bailed out. And more than a few rural retailers, seeing him as unwelcome competition, destroyed his catalogs when possible.
But Ward’s brother-in-law, George Robinson Thorne, saw an opportunity and joined him in the fledgling enterprise. Meeting rural residents’ need for affordably priced, quality dry goods, the company began to grow rapidly. Ward continued to expand his offering. In 1875, he staked his claim on quality, adding a guarantee of “satisfaction or your money back.”
In 1883, the Montgomery Ward catalog – by then commonly referred to as “the wish book” – contained 10,000 items on 240 pages. Ward’s supplied necessities, but also offered many a farmer and his family items to dream about. The catalog helped reduce the isolation felt by many rural residents, and led to a less austere existence for those who lived far from the city.
In 1893, the company began to face competition from an upstart. Sears, Roebuck & Co., also headquartered in Chicago, went head-to-head with Ward’s in a competition that would last more than a century. In 1900, Montgomery Ward did $8.7 million of business in mail orders alone (the company did not yet have a retail store). Competitor Sears, though, did $10 million business in mail order that year.
In 1904, Ward’s mailed 3 million 4-pound catalogs to customers across the U.S. Four years later, the company built an enormous warehouse along the Chicago River, just north of downtown Chicago. Stretching nearly a quarter of a mile alongside the river, the warehouse contained 1.25 million square feet. By 1930, Ward’s had established distribution centers in Baltimore, Maryland; Ft. Worth, Texas; Kansas City, Missouri; St. Paul, Minnesota; Portland, Oregon; and Oakland, California.
The company’s first retail outlet was opened in 1926 in Plymouth, Indiana. By 1928, Ward’s had opened 244 stores. That number more than doubled by 1930, when the company had 556 outlets. Despite losses in 1930, Ward’s became the country’s largest retailer by the end of the decade.
The end of World War II signaled significant social change in the U.S., not the least of which was an enormous population shift to the suburbs. Ward’s was slow to recognize the change and began to lose its base. By the mid-1950s, a long, slow decline was underway. The storied company discontinued its mail order catalog in 1985 and closed its doors in 2001, 130 years after it started. FC
In 1946, the Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog was named to a list of 100 books that had most influenced American life and culture. By then, the company was often referred to as “Monkey Ward,” a derivation of the early abbreviation “Mont’gy. Ward.” Interestingly, that nickname was used both by loyal customers and detractors.
Thirty years after publication of the first Ward’s catalog, the book had swollen into a gargantuan tome. The 1912 catalog weighed in at 850 pages and contained some 13,500 items, including women’s clothing (nearly 10 percent of the catalog was devoted to that single category) as well as clothing for men and children, jewelry, kitchen items, guns, gas engines, paint, wallpaper, fabric, automotive items, a full-size auto garage (priced at $108), and, for the first time, an automobile, “The All Star.” Orders were shipped by rail to the depot nearest the customer.
For the farm, there were windmills, pumps, tanks, plows, drills, planters, cultivators, discs, clod rollers, gristmills, corn shellers, hand tools and fencing. Parts were available for most implements and machines.
Colored ink was used sparingly in the 1912 catalog, primarily for clothing, shoes, cloth, wallpaper and horse blankets. High-cost items were showcased in generous space. Small, inexpensive items such as kitchen utensils were packed in, as many as 60 items to a page.
The 1912 Ward’s catalog offered just about anything a person could need, with the exception of food and housing. At some point, the company narrowed even that gap, offering house kits for sale.
A child’s coloring book published by Montgomery Ward & Co. in 1939 propelled a hitherto unknown red-nosed reindeer named Rudolph to fame. Ironically, the charming holiday tale would long outlast the company that brought it to life.
Working on assignment for Ward’s, author Robert L. May created the character in a poem for use in a coloring book. In its first year, 2.5 million copies were distributed. In 1949, May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, adapted the poem into a song. Rudolph achieved immortality when singer Gene Autry recorded the song, which hit the No. 1 position on the Billboard pop singles chart during Christmas week 1949. Autry’s recording eventually sold 25 million copies; it remained the second best-selling record of all time into the 1980s.
– George Wanamaker is a past president of the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association. He started collecting carpenter’s tools in the mid-1970s. Since then he’s also become a collector of farm and kitchen tools and anything old and unusual. Contact him at email@example.com.